The SS Isle of Capri had been in solar orbit on the edge of the Aikean system for two standard universal time days now, the equivalent of three days on Earth or a little less than that on Gallifrey. The trade conference was going well. The planetary system of eight inhabited planets were almost certainly going to benefit from it. While Kristoph played his role as one of the delegates, Marion had spent much of those three days travelling around the planets with the other diplomatic spouses visiting orphanages and hospitals and villages in outlying places where people desperately needed something to give them hope for their future.

They were travelling now, on a shuttle craft coming back from Aik-II, one of the arid innermost planets. They had visited a food distribution centre that was put in place to give immediate aid to a region where crops had failed and famine was imminent. Marion was reading some more information about the crisis on a mini computer screen in front of her seat. It was a familiar enough story, of course. The reasons for the failure of crops were to do with weather and climate. But the reasons for the famine were economic and political, just as they were in those parts of Earth affected by such tragedy.

She finished reading about the famine and sat back, looking around at the delegate spouses sitting nearest to her. Only two of them were women with male spouses taking part in the negotiations. There was a Haolstromnian who was currently in female form, but had appeared at breakfast this morning as a male while his partner, the delegate, was female. The night before they had both attended a ball in female form wearing matching gowns. There were also two men who were the spouses of the Bassina Coppa delegate, a slender, waiflike woman, with alabaster skin and white hair and a very stern expression permanently etched on her face.

In the seat beside her was a very attractive man who was about Marion’s age. He had piercing blue eyes and light brown hair and wore a suit, shirt and trousers. But the suit was specially tailored to account for the fact that he was pregnant. On his planet there was only one gender – male.

He gave a soft sigh and shifted in his seat, grimacing a little.

“Are you all right, Bertin?” Marion asked him. He smiled charmingly at her.

“The baby is moving about. Four and a half months now… growing every day. He has more energy than I have. He’s fed up of me sitting still. I’ll be glad when we get back to the ship and I can stretch my legs on the promenade deck.”

“Yes, I know that feeling,” Marion told him. “Is it your first baby?”

“It’s my first,” he answered. “But we have a five year old boy. My partner, Grady, the Ambassador, gave birth to him.”

“It… must be nice to have the choice,” Marion said. “To share the child-bearing. Your way of life has a lot to commend it.”

“You have a child yourself, Lady Marion?” asked The Haolstromian ambassador’s companion, Claudia Jean, or Jean-Claude depending on choice of gender.

Marion paused momentarily. Her answer was not exactly a lie.

“I have a daughter,” she said. “Rodan... she’s a year old. My mother in law is looking after her while I’m away. Spoiling her rotten with love and treats.”

“My father is doing the same with our boy,” Bertin told her. Claudia Jean added that her four children and three born of her current partner, the Haolstromnian ambassador, were all being looked after by her birth parent. Marion reflected that between them they represented three very different definitions of parenthood. Claudia Jean belonged to a species that never formed long term relationships and they had babies whenever they chose by voluntary parthenogenesis. Bertin was a Mizzonian and when they wanted children, one partner fertilised an egg and passed it to the other who incubated and nurtured it within his body until birth. Gallifreyans and Humans, with their method of a man fertilising the egg within the woman’s body seemed peculiar to both the Haolstromnian and Mizzonian. But the one thing they all three had in common was that they loved their children.

And that gave all three of them a particular view of the sad situation they had witnessed on Aik-II.

“It was terrible to see so many children affected,” Bertin said to her as he glanced at the images on the computer screen she had turned from. He touched his swollen stomach as he spoke, instinctively wanting to protect his own child. “I hope the trade deals that our husbands are negotiating will really help them, and not simply fatten corporate bank balances.”

“It’s no concern of ours if it does,” said one of the Bassia Coppa husbands. “We are not delegates.”

“We can still care,” Marion answered them. “And we can tell our husbands, wives, spouses, what we saw here today. I know Kristoph will be interested.”

“My husband certainly will be,” Bertin agreed.

The two Bassia Coppans shook their heads and said it was nothing to do with them. Marion was puzzled by their reaction.

“I don’t even know why those two came with us, today. Bassia Coppa men don’t have opinions,” Claudia Jean said. “About anything. They do as their women tell them, and think what their women tell them to think. Those two are only here to look attractive on Madam Coulliette’s arm at the social functions.”

The two men looked hurt by that comment, but Marion thought it was an accurate assessment. They were very much like some of the Gallifreyan ladies she knew who thought of nothing but luncheons and ballgowns. They really didn’t think they had any role to play in changing anything they had seen today.

“Well, that’s a pity,” Marion said. “I for one intend to talk to Kristoph about it. I know he is aware of the situation. He read the reports, the statistics about failed crops and the numbers of people affected. But until you’ve been there, and seen those hollow eyes and the look of utter despair on their faces, you can’t really know. Kristoph will listen to me, and I know he’ll do all he can to make sure something is done to provide immediate help for them.”

“They all will,” Claudia Jean assured her. “Even Madam Coulliette. She is a typical Bassia Coppa woman, with her harem of men for her personal pleasure. But she is also a woman of the universe and she will join with the other delegates in ensuring good is done here.”

“I do hope so,” Marion said. She sat back in her seat and looked out of the window at the view of a dark blue and red planet. It was Ak-III. The next planet out from Aik-II They were still more than two hours away from the SS Isle of Capri, right on the edge of the system in synchronous orbit with the frozen twin planets of Aik-VIII and Ak-VIII. But that was all right. The shuttle was very comfortable. There was plenty of food and drink when she wanted it, and friendly conversation with her fellow travellers.

Even so, Marion thought she would be glad to get back to the ship. She thought of the custom suite with the warm, Mediterranean sea she could bathe in and relax until Kristoph was done with today’s negotiations. He would be just as tired as she was, of course. He would be glad to take off his formal suit and come into the water with her. And after they had bathed they could lie on the sand together, warm and cosy, until it was time to get ready for tonight’s reception of delegates.

But at some time during the evening she would also tell Kristoph about her day and the things that she had seen.

She was thinking about her gown for the reception when the one man travel capsule crashed into the side of the shuttle. Later, it was established that the capsule pilot had suffered a blackout and swerved off course. The shuttle pilot had tried to avoid it, but he had only seconds before the impact.

Marion fell forwards as the shuttle pitched sideways. The anti-gravity cushions activated a few seconds too late to prevent her hitting her head on the edge of the seat. She felt somebody grab her hand as he fell against her. It was Bertin. His cry of fear and pain was the last thing she heard before she passed out.